Beginning to Pray (A. Bloom)

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Anthony Bloom (also known as Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh) is a prominent and prolific Christian writer and broadcaster with a fascinating life story. He was a Russian émigré,, whose family fled during the horrors of the communist revolution. They escaped to France, where he became a medical doctor, and participated in the French Resistance when the Germans invaded. He ended up becoming the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and Ireland.

His book, Beginning to Pray  starts with an interview where he explains this life story. The rest of the book consists of short essays containing reflections on prayer, or more specifically, on learning how to pray. The focus of the book is pastoral rather than theological.

Beginning to Pray is a brisk read: around 120 pages or so, and the language is clear and lively. There were multiple times, when reading Anthony Bloom’s books that I had to turn back  to the front cover to make sure I hadn’t accidentally picked up something by C.S. Lewis instead. I felt that their writing styles were very similar, in that both have an uncanny ability to explain difficult concepts with simple and engaging language.

“You remember how you were taught to write when you were small.  Your mother put a pencil in your hand, took your hand in hers, and began to move it.  Since you did not know at all what she meant to do, you left your hand completely free in hers.  This is what I mean by the power of God being manifest in weakness.  You could think of that also in the terms of a sail.  A sail can catch the wind and be used to maneuver a boat only because it is so frail.  If instead of a sail you put a solid board, it would not work; it is the weakness of the sail that makes it sensitive to the wind.  The same is true of the gauntlet and the surgical glove.  How strong is the gauntlet, how frail is the glove, yet in intelligent hands it can work miracles because it is so frail.  So one of the things which God continues to try to teach us is to replace the imaginary and minute amount of disturbing strength we have by this frailty of surrender, of abandonment in the hands of God.”

The essays are organized around addressing practical obstacles that Christians face in prayer. For instance, the first essay is about the challenge of praying when God feels absent, another is about being “in the moment” and avoiding the impulse to rush through prayer. He relies heavily on example to explain his points: stories from the Bible, from church history, from folklore- he even makes reference to The Little Prince.

There is an emphasis throughout the book on the importance of humility in prayer. When we pray we are encountering God, in all his transcendence and power. A lot of the obstacles to prayer that the Beginning to Pray deals with are a result of regarding this encounter too flippantly. There is also a sense of humility on the part of the author. I did not get the sense that I was getting a lecture on prayer from someone who has figured it all out, but rather that I was reading reflections from someone who has spent his life trying to learn how to pray better himself.
I would add that while the ideas in Beginning to Pray are firmly Orthodox, I think Christians of all denominations would enjoy and appreciate it. As evidence, note that the book is currently being published by Paulist Press, a Roman Catholic publisher. Thus to everyone who struggles with the idea or the practice of prayer, this is a book I would highly recommend.

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4 thoughts on “Beginning to Pray (A. Bloom)

  1. Thank you, Darren, for your article and recommendation! Indeed, “Beginning to Pray” is a good book.

    For those who want to learn more about prayer, I would recommend books of another Russian author, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov. Bishop Ignatius’ writings are essential reading and study for today’s Christians who are interested in spiritual life.

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  2. PS St. Ignatius Brianchaninov says that prayer without attention, humility, reverence, and repentance is a vain repetition:

    “The soul of prayer is attention. Just as the body is dead without the soul, prayer without attention is dead. The spoken prayer turns into empty words without attention and the one who prays is counted amongst those who take the Lord’s name in vain.

    Pronounce the words of the prayer unhurriedly; do not allow the mind to wander about but enclose it in the words of the prayer. This path is narrow and sorrowful for a mind which is used to drifting freely about the world, this path leads to attention. Whoever tastes the great blessing of attention will love to constrict the mind on the path which leads to holy attention.

    During prayer, your mind should be free of images and you should thus preserve it carefully, dispelling all images which spring up through the power of the imagination, for the mind in prayer stands before God who is unseen, Who cannot be represented in any material way. If the mind allows images in prayer, they become an impenetrable curtain, a wall between the mind and God. “Those who see nothing in their prayers, see God,” said venerable Meletius the Confessor.

    Do not seek enjoyment in prayer: this is not at all natural for the sinner. The desire of the sinner to feel enjoyment is indeed delusion. Seek for your dead and hardened heart to come alive, so that it is opened up to feel its own sinfulness, its fall and unworthiness, so that it can see them and admit them with self-abandonment. Then the true fruit of prayer will be found in you-true repentance. You will groan before God and cry out to Him through prayer from the wretched state of the soul which has suddenly revealed itself to you; you will cry out as if from a dungeon, from the grave, from hell.

    Repentance produces prayer and this daughter produces it two-fold.

    Learn to pray with all your mind, with all your soul and with all your strength. You might ask: what does this mean? You cannot find out in any other way than through experience. Try to constantly be occupied with attentive prayer: attentive prayer will grant you the answer to this question through holy experience.

    Prayer is commanded by the Lord, just as is repentance. There is one appointed end of prayer, as there is of repentance: entry into the Kingdom of Heaven, into God’s Kingdom, which is within us. Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 4:17). The kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:21).

    Hasten in prayer, thirsting for the salvation of the soul, hasten after the Saviour, accompanied by His innumerable disciples. Call after Him though prayer, like the woman of Canaan (Matthew 15:22-28); do not grieve at His lengthy inattention; endure nobly and humbly the sorrows and humiliations which He will grant you on the path of prayer. Help from temptations is constantly needed for attainment in prayer. It is in accordance with your faith, for your humility, for your steadfastness in your prayer, that He will console you with the healing of your daughter who is agitated by the action of the passions, by the healing of your thoughts and feelings, transforming them from passion-filled to dispassionate, from sinful to holy, from fleshly to spiritual. Amen.”

    http://www.orthodoxprayer.org/Articles_files/Brianchaninov-Preparing%20for%20Prayer.html
    http://www.orthodoxprayer.org/Articles_files/Brianchaninov-Attention%20at%20Prayer.html
    http://www.orthodoxprayer.org/Articles_files/Brianchaninov-Jesus%20Prayer.html

    Another great teacher on prayer is St Isaac the Syrian. He says:

    • Pray with attention – so that we can have a true encounter with God
    • Pray with humility – because this sort of prayer goes straight to God’s ear
    • Pray with affection and tears – with joy and thanksgiving, but also with true repentance and purity.
    • Pray with patience and ardor – ‘to deny oneself’ is courageously to persevere in prayer.
    • Pray from the depths of the heart – even if we pray using ‘the words of another’ they should be uttered as if they are our own. St. Isaac says this is especially true of the Psalms.
    • Pray with faith and absolute trust in God – because He knows our life.

    http://www.orthodoxprayer.org/Articles_files/Isaac-On%20Prayer.html

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